The New York punk scene of the late 1970s is a well-documented one, with many writers and musicians associated with the scene offering their impressions and memories of a period that had a seismic effect on rock music. Phil Marcade’s memoir Punk Avenue: Inside the New York City Underground 1972-1982 comes with introductions from both Debbie Harry and Legs McNeil, and offers an interesting take on the music and personalities of the scene. Marcade was a participant in it, as the frontman of The Senders, and in various other roles within the scene; in his memoir, he writes about the evolution of the community and the city over the course of a decade, offering more than a few memorable stories and insightful remarks. I spoke with Marcade earlier this year, just after the book’s release event at Le Poisson Rouge.
How did the launch event at Le Poisson Rouge go?
It was really great. It was much better than I expected. I expected it to be really great, but it was even better. I was stunned by the turnout. It felt like This Is Your Life, the TV show. All the people I knew came, people I hadn’t seen for 30 years. And the bands were fabulous.
Did you always think you were going to write a book about your experience in the New York punk scene, or was there one event that kind of made you decide you were going to do it?
It was kind of in the back of my mind for a long time. What I started doing was, I took a little notebook in my back pocket everywhere I went. Whenever an anecdote came to mind, I would write a few notes. I wanted to see if I had enough stories to fill up a book. Indeed, very quickly, my little notebook was filled. But I still wasn’t sure where I should start writing.
The moment came when I broke my front tooth, and I had two other teeth removed around it. I had a huge hole in the front of my mouth. I really didn’t want to see friends looking like this, so I spent a lot of time locking myself up in the house where I lived at the time, in Astoria, Queens. I had something to keep myself occupied and not go insane. So I started writing. What was really great was, at the same time, I was sending emails to my nephew in France, who was really interested in that topic. I would write about 30 pages, send it to him, and his reaction was so great that it kept me going. I had an audience of one, which kept me motivated.
Was there anything where you needed to go back and ask other people about the details of certain events?
When I first wrote it, I completely relied on my own memory. Of course, once it was all finished, I verified everything I’d written. I did have to correct a couple of mistakes in chronological order. Apart from that, it was a huge boost to see that everything I remembered, I looked up on the internet, and I was right. Everything I could verify, I did. I wasn’t trusting my own memory completely—not even my own sanity.
In addition to the music you’ve made, you’re also a painter. Was there a point where you shifted from one as your primary means of artistic expression to the other?
It happened completely spontaneously. I never thought for a second that I’d end up in a band in New York, especially singing, with the French accent I have. In ’76, Johnny Thunders took me to one of his best friends, whose name is Steve Shevlin. He was playing bass, and had a drum kit. When I was a teenager, I played drums; I was a bit of a drummer already. I started playing drums with him playing the bass, and we put The Senders together. After a few months of playing with me on the drums, we decided we lacked a frontman. I became the singer of the band, and that’s how The Senders took off. We went from ’76 to 2001.
When did you start painting? In the middle of all of that?
I was in art school in Paris. I was drawing, ever since I was a child. At age 16, when I was still in high school, I got accepted, so the following year, I went to art school. I didn’t attend my classes that much. I ended up hanging out in Amsterdam. I met this kid from Boston, and he invited me to come to Boston with him; he arranged that his father would take me as a student au pair so I could get a visa. I went to Boston in the middle of my first art school year. The plan was for me to stay one month. However, I stayed much longer–I stayed for 40 years.
In 2001, I moved Italy, where my girlfriend is from. I moved to Bologna, and I started to paint. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past 16 years, just painting all the time.
You’re writing about a period of time that a lot of books have been written about. Were you conscious of books about that scene that had come before yours?
Not much. However, I was interviewed for the book Please Kill Me. Talking to Legs McNeil, he thought that my stories were really funny, which motivated me to write more. I was aware of the other books about punk rock, but I didn’t want to make a music book. I wanted to tell my own story and take the reader into that world.
I decided that I needed to know exactly where it would begin and where it would end. I thought I would cover one decade, so that was 1972 to 1982. It made sense to me, that that was a good place to start. I didn’t want to start in the punk movement, but instead show what led to it. Those years were really important to me, because I became good friends with Nan Goldin, David Armstrong, the photographers in Boston, John Waters… Then I moved to New York in ’75. The first night I was in New York, I stayed in the Chelsea Hotel. I walked out of there; I didn’t know the neighborhood. I heard some music playing from across the street, from this little club called Mother’s on 23rd Street. The band playing was Mink DeVille. It was their very beginning, and there were only maybe 20 people in the room. That was my arrival in New York, and I plunged into the music scene right away.
In deciding to end the book in 1982, were there any kind of stories or personalities or people that you were you regretted not being able to include in the book?
I thought 1982 was a good place for it to end. As you’ll find by reading the book, I had gotten myself, very stupidly, addicted to heroin. It completely ruined my life. In ’82, I decided to quit. I was able to do it, praise God. It was really the end of the changes, of the musical revolution that had just happened in New York. Things were starting to settle a little bit.
What is it like for you when you come back to New York after having moved away?
It’s really strange. I’ve been away for five years, and coming back here is really cool. It’s magical to be here again, though it hasn’t been that long. I walk around the Lower East Side, and I notice places that have changed a lot. What was strange for me is–I was in town on 9/11. I saw the towers fall from my girlfriend at the time’s window. I witnessed that whole scene. But I’d never seen the new tower, so that building is completely new to me.
And all the construction in Alphabet City is very strange to see. My last years in New York, I wasn’t going much in that area, but it was starting to change already. I walked through there the other day and found that it was like SoHo–very expensive restaurants and things. It’s completely different?
What music do you find yourself listening to these days? Are you still listening to a lot of the artists you talk about in the book, or are you listening to more contemporary bands?
Both. I collect records, especially 45s. I’m still completely thrilled to discover new old jazz, from the 50s and 60s. It’s an era of music I’m really into–rhythm & blues, rockabilly… But also, now that I’m older, I try to stay plugged into the new stuff. I discovered, on the internet, a band that I’m totally nuts for, and that’s Daddy Long Legs. I think they’re the best band in the world right now. I invited them to play my party, and they accepted. I was really thrilled, because I’m a true fan.
I try to keep in touch with what’s going on. However, I’m now 62, and I kind of feel like if there’s stuff I don’t know, that’s good. When I was 20, I didn’t want a 62-year-old guy telling me that it was much better in his day! So I don’t want to be like that, either. I’m a bit out of touch, and that’s a good thing. Rock and roll is a youth movement. If I don’t know it, that means it’s good. (laughs)
Because you ended this book in 1982, do you think you might write about the period of time after that?
My first thought was no, never. But the more I think of it, I find that the period from 1988 to 1998 is really interesting, too. If I was ever to write a sequel to Punk Avenue, that would be the years I’d be talking about. Bands like the Waldos, the scene at the Continental Divide, the scene at Coney Island High, all those groups. Certainly there was a revival of really, really great stuff. All these new band that were really interesting. If I was to write another book, those would be the years I’d write about. I haven’t started yet. But I might!
Photo: Eve Savini